Don’t Be Too Black, Mr. President

What does it mean to be Black in America? Many Americans caught a glimpse of it on national television during the first of three presidential debates. The President look disinterested, annoyed, preoccupied, not on his “A” game as some analyst remarked. Other pundits suggested that POTUS appeared tired looking and too nice. Obama supporters and those tough independent voters wanted more.

(Image from here.)


Remember, it’s been four years since the man has had a debate-he’s rusty. But amidst the fight of his political career, few have considered the enormous psychological cost of being black that the President must feel each and every time he’s on the stage. President Obama is not just another president in the long history of white presidents we’ve had in this country. He’s the first black president, and with that comes additionally burdens that only blacks and other stigmatized minority groups can truly appreciate. His overall likeability ratings are indicative of his daily performance of hyper-politeness, which is what black folk must do when working in predominately white settings. It’s in black Americans’ best interest to keep white folks happy and content as to not upset the racial applecart.

It isn’t natural, by any means, to always have to pretend to be nice to white people-not because you aren’t a genuinely nice person, but because those relationships expend too much emotional energy by feeling like you’re always on stage, teaching whites, or deflecting the many dominate white racial frames they hold in their subconscious mind about African Americans and other groups of color. President Obama must maintain his discipline and his composure or risk being perceived as “too black” and angry, even when it’s well within his purview to launch a counter offensive against Mr. Romney on several key topics like the notorious 47% remark, Bain capital, and why a guy with his stock-pile of cash only pays 14% in taxes?

Unlike Mitt Romney, however, President Obama must present himself (unfortunately) at times as stiff and professorial in efforts to put the white voter at ease over the presence of a black man in the White House, even though only 43% of Whites actually voted for Senator Obama in 2008. So the President has to play it cool and maintain his well-known calm demeanor. He cannot be portrayed as “too black” in the stereotypical sense like raising his voice and showing outward displays of emotion. Otherwise, his actions have the potential to associate him with dominant ideologies of black males who are seen as sub-human, violent, criminal, and “bad”-ideologies that are deeply rooted within U.S. society (and, hence, in our perceptions, attitudes, reactions, and language).

These rules were not established by President Obama, or other Americans of color for that matter, but are a result of a 500 year-old process of domination involving the use of language (white racial knowledge production) around black bodies inscribed in law, politics, education, medicine and every other major institution in society through a collective experience of human suffering, violence, psychological mayhem and the exploitation of labor and land theft. President Obama must work within the established and contemporary racial order or risk the perception of him as a public danger in the White House because his race is a “liability”-the elephant in the room that no ones wants to talk about.

This may be to some extent why he avoids the question of race altogether (at least publicly) so far in his administration. And though the specifics of Romney’s plan for president never materialized throughout the debate, the Romney camp looses nothing by ruffling the President’s feathers in hopes of lighting a fire under him to get him a little more animated and, hence, a little more “black” to the average white viewer. President Obama has all the ammunition to reveal the facts and expose the loopholes of his competitor’s presidential platform that currently lacks in substance.

The President can even celebrate a bit today given the national unemployment rate has fallen to 7.8%. Mortgage rates are at an all-time low as well, which suggests that the nation is moving in the right direction for many middle-class Americans. So President Obama’s task in the next debate is to maintain a course of calculated assertiveness, “attacking” his opponent’s platform with these additional talking points. But don’t be too black, Mr. President. White America has shown they can’t handle that (at least 57% of them can’t).


~ Follow me on twitter @DrDarronSmith or visit me at




  1. PaulInOakland

    Dr Smith, thanks, you are one of a few folks who have written about the debate through this lens. I do think Obama was a little surprised at how willing Romney was to “reinvent” himself on the fly.But that notwithstanding, you are absolute correct, he cannot “go off”, if he had taken Romney to school, even in a purely intellectual fashion he would have been characterized as elitist, snarky etc… He will always have to remain, non-frightening to white folk. And let’s not even talk about the non-too-subtle race baiting going on in our national discourse.


  2. John D. Foster

    Thank you so much for the post; I was thinking of doing one myself, but you beat me to it! I find it alarming how virtually no one in the “mainstream media” have mentioned how race could have been a factor in this debate, such as the Prez going out of his way not to interrupt Romney, or even look Romney in the eye (at least not too often). So few white Americans even realize the racist reality of this country, and how doing so could risk a black man’s life. While some might say Obama doesn’t need those “racist” white voters on his side to win anyway, we are talking about something systemic that virtually ALL whites have buried into their minds, and the Prez needs to do well with independent voters. Thus, it becomes a catch-22 for the Prez: if he pushes back on some or all of Romney’s blatant lies, he’s an “angry black man.” If he doesn’t push back, he’s labeled disinterested, lazy, etc. Somebody needs to explain this to Chris Matthews (among others)!

    • Somebody needs to explain this to Chris Matthews (among others)!

      I agree. Poor Chris, his head was about to pop!

      Romney was bound to get a bounce from his debate performance. But I think the melodrama from the left made things worse. Romney won on performance not facts. But if on you heard was snatches of the left’s catastrophizing, you may not realize that.

      On an off- but related topic, how fickle are US voters that 90 minutes could have such a dramatic effect on the polls? Wow! It’s almost enough to make me want reading tests before voting.

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